Transference Love

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The term transference love designates an emotional relationship, determined by the analytic situation, of which the manifest object is the analyst; the task of the analyst in this circumstance is to trace the relationship back, without either satisfying or smothering it, to its infantile roots.

Transference love is a defining feature of the psychoanalytic method. Psychoanalysis does not cure by love, but love and the analyst play a mediating role therein (Oppenheimer, Agnès, 1996). The set of inner problems generated by transference love, inasmuch as no direct satisfaction is forthcoming, eventually frees love from repression: The truly intermediary role of transference love thus makes love possible.

The transference follows the vicissitudes of love. When it is negative, hostile, or governed by repressed erotic impulses it constitutes resistance. According to Sigmund Freud, the "transference of friendly or affectionate feelings" which are "unobjectionable and admissible to consciousness" can contribute to a successful cure (1912b, p.105). Transference love allows the patient to become attached to the aims of the treatment as well as to the person of the analyst.

Even as resistance, transference love is thus a prerequisite to cure: it "represents an artificial illness which is at every point accessible to our intervention. It is a piece of real experience, but one which has been made possible by especially favorable conditions" (1914g, p. 154). One of the difficulties, or impossibilities, confronting the treatment is that some patients refuse to resign themselves to the fact that the material fulfillment of this surrogate love is not an option; such patients are "accessible only to 'the logic of soup, with dumplings for arguments'" (1915a, p. 167). But can this still be considered love? It is clear that the manifest demand for love covers up latent considerations of another kind. The patient's explicit demand for recognition also reflects a both demand for reparation, and shortcomings in their symbolizing capacity.

Where affectionate feelings are transformed into an erotic demand, Freud compares what happens to an outbreak of fire during a theatrical performance. The analyst's interpretation is what then allows the patient to grasp that they are mistaken as to time and object.

In "Observations on Transference-Love" (1915a), Freud promoted an attitude with respect to the complex phenomenon of transference love that would later be characterized by Michael Balint as "prudent." Discussing the analyst's difficulties when faced by transference love, and confining his remarks to the situation of a male analyst and a female patient, he called for prudence on the part of the doctor and warned, apropos of manifestations of transference love, "against any tendency to a counter-transference which may be present in his own mind" (p. 160).

A patient's passionate attachment to the analyst should indeed never be treated as evidence of the physician's personal irresistibility, but rather as an effect of the analytic situation itself. For Freud, transference was a mésalliance, a "false connection" (1895d, p. 303), and although the conduct of the cure required the analyst to maintain the transference love, they should nevertheless look upon it as "something unreal, as a situation which has to be gone through in the treatment and traced back to its unconscious origins" (1915a, p. 166). At the same time, despite this "unreality," despite his emphasis on the inauthenticity, as it were, of the transference, Freud acknowledged that "We have no right to dispute that the state of being in love which makes its appearance in the course of analytic treatment has the character of a 'genuine' love." In fact transference love was no different from any other kind of love, for "There is no such state [of being in love] which does not reproduce infantile prototypes" (p. 168). For Freud, it was this infantile aspect which gave love in general, and transference love in particular, "its compulsive character, verging as it does on the pathological" (p. 168).

What is repeated in transference love is frustration, a demand not heard, never answered, which leads the patient to reassume the position of a child with respect to the analyst. A love transference is usually capable of being analyzed and pressed into the service of the treatment, especially when it is moderate, as is most often the case, and when it is first manifested as defensive maneuvers.

Sometimes, however, the demand for love takes on a querulous character in passionate transferences: the patient's grievance concerning this frustration becomes aggressive and exacting. An insistence on reparation emerges, stressful for the analytic setting and challenging to the analyst's control over the counter-transference. The handling of the treatment is particularly difficult with patients who come close to erotomania or indeed sink into it. In such cases, as described by Freud, the situation may have an incendiary character. Behind the exacerbated demand for love and reparation that is seen in passionate transferences lie developmental deficits and failures of the primary environment that have distorted the patient's self. The eroticization of the transference serves as a defense against a fear of disintegration, which in turn derives from the primary depression that such a patient will have experienced in the earliest stages of their development.

The analyst's primary position in the face of transference love is that of the interpreter. As Freud wrote, transference love must be traced back to its unconscious roots. For this reason abstinence must be the rule during the treatment. Considerations both technical and ethical prohibit the analyst from gratifying the solicitations of transference love. Like the physician bound by the Hippocratic oath, they must not draw personal profit from the analytic situation. But they must also never lose sight of the fact that the patient is suffering from a limited capacity to love for which infantile fixations are responsible. The analytic cure should make possible the restoration of a function that is of "inestimable importance" to the patient, one that they should not "dissipate in the treatment, but keep . . . ready for the time when, after [his or] her treatment, the demands of real life make themselves felt" (1915a, p. 169). Likewise, "If the patient's advances were returned it would be a great triumph for her"and for the resistance"but a complete defeat for the treatment. She would have succeeded . . . in acting out, in repeating in real life, what she ought only to have remembered, to have reproduced as psychical material." This "distressing episode would end in remorse and a great strengthening of her propensity to repression" (p. 166).

Clearly, the analysis of the counter-transference is necessary so as to prevent the analyst's personal feelings, complexes or inner resistances from hindering the progress of the treatment. The excitation provoked in the analyst by the patient's demands and transferential projections, and notably the erotization of the transference, certainly put the analyst's superego to the test, but at a more fundamental level they challenge their relational skills and capacity for symbolization as well as mastery over their own desire for reparation.

Typically, acting-out by the practitioner, in response to the patient's transference love, signals a lack of professional maturity in dealing with the counter-transferential anxiety aroused by the interpersonal situation, as well as a failure to deal with personal narcissistic shortcomings or masochistic tendencies.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Counter-transference; Negative therapeutic reaction; Transference.


Freud, Sigmund, (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.

. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12: 145-156.

. (1915a [1914]). Observations on transference love (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis III). SE, 12: 157-171.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE,2.

Oppenheimer, Agnès (1996). Kohut et la psychologie du self. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.